Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Howard Ball - Man About Town

Last month, our band played a concert at the New Jersey Fireman’s Home in Boonton.  Howard Ball, long-time editor of the local newspaper, The Suburban Trends, and one-time trumpet player on our band, had just taken up residency there.  But that morning, the very day of his admittance to the home, he had to go to the hospital.  We were very disappointed but hoped we would get to see him this weekend at our next concert.

But alas, it was not to be.  Howard died at the Fireman’s Home this past Saturday at the age of 83 from pneumonia.  It was the best place for him to end his time, with other fireman.  Next to being a newspaperman, being a fireman was his life.

If you want the definition of a “community organizer”, Howard was the definitive community organizer.  A newspaper editor by profession, he was also a clergyman, volunteer fireman and chaplain, teacher, and mentor to dozens and dozens of up and coming reporters.  And of course, he was a musician.

Howard was that rarest of all newspaper editors – kind, patient, and good-natured.  He could be tough, they said, but never mean or unfair.  He held his reporters to high journalistic standards, whether it was a story on how a national event affected local citizens, or the dance at the local Senior Citizens center.  He thought of himself as a teacher and mentor first.  He was kind enough to give this writer a chance when no one else would because her “grades” weren’t good enough.  Ultimately, he was replaced by the more typical kind of newspaper editor, which was a loss to the Trends, and so was the writer.  One of his successors was practically a card-carrying communist, or might as well have been.  Thanks to Howard, I had enough of a portfolio to show to the next editor, J.D., who was kind enough to hire me when, again, no one else would.  My job there was my dream job.  I did exactly what I had always wanted to do for the Trends, although it was for the company’s internal publications.  Close enough.
He was also a truly objective editor when it came to politics.  In the midst of the Watergate Era, he was friends with the local Republican parties.  Howard’s paper reported the news and the politics, but his first love was the community itself.  That’s what made – and still makes – The Trends such a beloved paper.  He received a Lifetime Award from the Pompton Lakes Republican Club.

One of the editors wrote that he was “Pompton Lakes” but Howard was all the towns the paper serves – from West Milford to Wayne and all the little towns in between.  No story was really considered “too small” for the Trends.  Residents from the city scoffed at its small-town feel, but The Trends had a heart – Howard’s heart.

Having grown up reading The Trends, I wanted to be a reporter just like the reporters he hired to write the news of the towns.  They were all local people who knew everyone.  Some people called it gossip, but I thought it was wonderful that someone cared enough to write about the “little people” of our “little towns”.  Howard published stories about the local garden clubs, the ecological committees, the Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts.  He published stories about new little businesses opening up and town pride days.  The mayor of one town asked him to publish pictures of animals in need of adoption and he did.

Howard was an expert on local history.  Even after he retired, he continued to write a column about the local history of the area until just a few weeks before his death.  History wasn’t about some far off place in Virginia or Texas; it was right underneath your feet.  This was where the Pompton Mutiny happened.  That was where the Indian village was located before the high school was built.  Look down in the Wanaque Reservoir when the water is low; you can still see the old bridge.  Howard was also a member of the Sons of the American Revolution and could trace ancestors back to the Minutemen who fought at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

Howard had his problems early in life.  But he found help through God and spent the remainder of his life, which was quite a span of time, serving others.  Not just through the newspaper, but through the fire department and police department and through numerous charities and organizations such as the Passaic County Mutual Aid Society and the Passaic Head Start program in upper Passaic County.  He served as executive director of the Upper Passaic County Community Action Program, which ran the local Meals-on-Wheels program.  Howard was also a pastor at the Assembly of God Church in Butler and was an advisor to the church’s 12-Step program.

The one thing The Trends neglected to mention was how long Howard served with the Trends or when he became editor.  I know it dates back at least to the Sixties, when their offices were on the Riverdale Circle (which is no longer a traffic circle).

The Trends quotes Harry Hicks, Kinnelon’s Office of Emergency Management Coordinator, as saying, “Howard Ball set the standard on being nice – he had plenty of opportunity to say nasty things about people, even some politicians who had done some nasty things, but he never did.”

Recently, the talk of the pundit world has been Anna Wintour’s (pronounced “winter”) commercial for the Obama campaign: an invitation to the hoi-poloi (that’s a fancy, Anna Wintour word for the little people) to express their support for Obama and win a chance to have dinner with Anna and Mee-chelle (some people make fun of her accent; they think it’s an affected upper class accent, but she is actually British; born in London, the daughter of a famous publisher).

Wintour is the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, just THE most influential publication in the fashion world.  Wintour is so notorious for chewing up interns and spitting them out that she’s earned the nickname “Nuclear Wintour.”  Her reputation is so bad that she was supposedly the inspiration for the character Amanda Priestly in the movie, The Devil Wears Prada (as Glenn Beck notes wryly, she’s the “Devil”; Prada is a brand of shoe).

I never worked for Wintour and hope I never do, though I might just submit my resume to Vogue, for laughs,  However, I’ve worked for Anna Wintours.  They’re horrible people who scream at people until they shake, kick cabinet doors, and make their subordinates perform menial task as a demonstration of their power.  They inspired the creation of Prozac.

That an editor of high fashion magazine is a demanding, snobbish task master should come as no surprise.  While her British accent is not affected (as a connoisseur of accents, and having studied the British accents while I was on vacation in England, I could tell it was real), her manner certainly is.  She’s the very last person I would ever want to sit down to have a meal with, and I’m sure she would share the sentiment, if she knew me.  She’s traveled the world and lived a rootless, although lucrative, existence.  She – and others like her – have spent so much time jet-setting and living in ivory towers that she’s become disconnected from humanity.  That detachment has made her the cold, heartless, but successful, woman she is today.  The very opposite of Howard Ball.   She’s probably given away millions to charities and community organizations but, unlike Howard, never put her dainty foot in one of their neighborhoods, unless it was for a photo-op.  Can you imagine Wintour trying to put out a house fire or riding on the top of a fire truck?  Or marching in a three-mile parade playing trumpet?  In Pradas?

I will certainly give a pass to her “invitation” (“And don’t be late,” she snaps at the end of the commercial.)  I would have much rather have been able to sit down to a picnic this weekend over a plate of hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad and root beer with Howard Ball (the standard fare of fireman and parade musicians, like us).   Since he can’t be there, those of us in the band who knew him – MC, DH, DR, myself and others – will raise a glass of root beer to Howard.

Thank you for being so kind, Howard, and giving me a chance (you, too, J.D. – I just hope third time is the charm).  I’ll never forget you!  God bless you, Howard!


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